The ‘thin blue line’ and the slide into authoritarianism

Since it first popularized in 2019, especially in the months leading up to the 2020 elections, another flag has joined and, in some cases, become more prominent than the stars and stripes, the Gadsden (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) flag and even MAGA standards at Trump rallies and other right wing events in the United States.

The ‘thin blue line’ flag, which will by now be familiar to most, is black and white with a single stripe through its middle in that color. On occasion, it also includes a ‘Punisher’ skull referencing the murderous Marvel Comics vigilante, the kind of symbol one would think law enforcement would want to avoid.

Although the flag was initially used to honor those police who died in the line of duty, the main reference being made by it at present is to the idea that law enforcement stands as the only bulwark against a societal breakdown into anarchy and chaos. If this dubious theory were true, there probably aren’t enough police officers to stave this off in the normal run of things anyway.

Still, ordinary citizens in most of the world’s representative democracies, even in the current highly polarized political environment, manage to go about their business without the need for constant police intervention to keep them safe.

For the many on the left, the same ‘thin blue line’ concept reinforces the idea that police lookout for one another and follow a ‘code’ that demands silence in regards to colleagues, even when they’re suspected or known to be engaged in corruption or criminal activity. This progressive reading is thought to come from the 1988 Errol Morris documentary that has the term as its title; a film that tells the story of a Texas man railroaded by police and sentenced to death before being exonerated after spending 12 years in prison, some of them on death row.

Versions of the thin blue line flag have been adopted elsewhere, with a Canadian version prominently displayed instead of the national standard at the headquarters of the Ontario Provincial Police Association this summer in what was seen by many activists as taking an oppositional stance to the Black Lives Matter protests that were roiling the country’s major cities during the uprising that began in the United States after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th.

The use of the flag by law enforcement and pro-police activists in North America often comes alongside t-shirts, posters and other paraphernalia featuring the slogan ‘Blue Live Matter’. When one thinks of how heroically law enforcement is usually portrayed in popular culture, this co-option of Black Lives Matter comes off as disingenuous to all but the most gullible or biased people.

As is obvious to most, the reason why Black Lives Matter became a rallying cry for a new generation of social and racial justice activists is because time and again we’ve seen that these lives, especially those of young African American men, are valued less by authorities who show this through their actions, not only in the U.S. but in African diaspora communities throughout the world.

The thin blue line flag and references to ‘Blue Lives Matter’ can also reinforce the lack of trust between law enforcement and much of the larger community, especially those groups who have reason to feel they are subject to greater law enforcement scrutiny. For proof of this we need look no further than poorer communities where people of color are in the majority like Ferguson, Missouri. Rather than protecting and serving citizens, law enforcement often seems more interested in shaking them down through tickets and fines for minor infractions.

As Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University told Politico a few months ago, the flag “…fosters this ‘us versus them’ mentality. The police and community together should work together, in order to produce safety. Each should respect the role of the other. If you’re looking at the community as a potential enemy, or a threat, that’s certainly going to hinder any positive relationship.”

This adversarial relationship, increasingly visible in videos and live streams showing citizen interactions with police, has been a feature of law enforcement at all levels in the United States (and to a lesser extent in Canada) for some time, but the Trump years have seen a rise in the openness with which individual officers seem to pick sides in political battles, especially during protests.

Tragically, we saw this rightwing bias in action in Kenosha, Wisconsin after another African American man, Jacob Blake, was killed by police on August 23rd, touching off angry protests in the city.

A teenager from the neighboring state of Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an assault rifle, decided to travel to the city with the intention of joining other heavily armed counter-protesters who claimed their intention was to protect local businesses in case the protests turned violent. In a video taken before the young man killed two people and wounded another, police tell the heavily armed men including Rittenhouse how much they ‘appreciate’ them and throw the 17 year old a bottle of water.

Even after Rittenhouse had opened fire, he was able to walk past lines of police cars heading to the scene who let him pass without so much as asking a question.

Compare this to what happened after another protest related shooting occurred in Portland where the roles were reversed and a member of the militia group Patriot Prayer was killed by Michael Reinoehl, 48, an activist participating in a BLM protest. After lionizing Rittenhouse as some kind of hero for weeks, the American right, all the way up to President Trump, demanded not justice but ‘retribution’ for the killing, basically calling for an extrajudicial killing.

Reinoehl claimed he was defending a friend from an aggressor brandishing a knife in an interview that appeared on the website for Vice before he was killed by U.S. Marshals, who claimed he had pointed a gun at them (disputed by almost every witness to what happened who also claimed the 48 year old was given no warning by the officers), “You know, lots of lawyers suggest that I shouldn’t even be saying anything, but I feel it’s important that the world at least gets a little bit of what’s really going on. I had no choice. I mean, I, I had a choice. I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.”

Reinoehl will now never have the chance to defend himself in court. Their jubilant reaction to his killing shows both the hypocrisy of those on the right who have been so eager to defend Rittenhouse and the slide of American law enforcement, especially at the federal level represented by those U.S. marshals, into the enforcement arm of a reactionary movement.

This slide becomes more obvious when we look at the unprecedented number of federal charges brought against BLM protesters this summer and the weaponization of charges based on crossing state lines.

As Michael Loadenthal, the executive director of the Prosecution Project explained to The Intercept last week, “More than mass arrests, we see over 300 cases of selective prosecution by the feds against demonstrators …Since using an interstate highway, the mail service, cellular networks, internet backbone, and other services can constitute ‘interstate,’ the bar has just been continually lowered for describing a crime as an ‘interstate’ crime,”

With a victory for Joe Biden appearing likely in the American presidential election where counts are still ongoing as this is being written, there may be a tendency for protesters and activists to become less confrontational but everyone should remember how rare it is for the center right Democrats who control the party to reverse the ‘law and order’ policies of their Republican predecessors. It should also be remembered that the likely president-elect has shot down calls for defunding the police for months and has a half century history of taking the side of law enforcement.

Nonetheless, a Democratic administration under the right amount of pressure can at the very least help to tone down the kind of rhetoric that has only emboldened law enforcement overreach in the United States and beyond.


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